Saturday, December 20, 2014

para

Annunciation by Francisco de Goya
Image from goyapaintings.org 
I was reading Luke 1 a few weeks ago, you know, the story where Gabriel the heavenly messenger brings messages of hope to the old priest, Zechariah, and then to the young girl, Mary. In both cases, women who could not technically have children were given promises that they would conceive and have a boy.  Zechariah was astonished and expressed doubt that this would be possible. He was soon given a sign that anything is possible with God. Mary was also taken aback and wondered how she could conceive a child since she had never been intimate with a man. Gabriel assured her that "Nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 1:37 RSV

And this is where I stopped short in my reading. The word "with" in verse 37 jumped out at me. It was like I had never noticed it before. So I took my dusty Greek bible off the shelf and took a closer look at the verse in its original language. Here it is:

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρ πν ῥῆμα

Then I pulled out the big, green lexicon and translated it (yep, my Greek is really rusty). Here are the meanings for each Greek word:

ὅτι (hoti) = now
οὐκ = by no means (because it is placed at the beginning of the sentence, this word carries extra emphasis)
ἀδυνατήσει (adunatesei, verb, future active indicative, 3rd person singular) = it will be powerless, impotent, impossible, disabled 
παρὰ (para) = beside, in the presence of, with, before
τῷ θεῷ (to theo) = the god (dative  case, primarily a case of personal relations, the root idea is personal interest, of god, from god)
πᾶν (pan) = all, every
ῥῆμα (rema) = thing, object, matter, event, word
Put it all together and you get: "Now by no means will it (all things) be impossible with God." Pretty much like the translation from the New Revised Standard Version I quoted above. 
So let's take a closer look at the word "para" which is translated "with." It includes ideas such as:
People or things together in one place
In the company of, alongside
Two or more people or things doing something together or involved in something
Used as a function word to indicate a participant in an action, transaction, or arrangement
So as to be touching or joined to, in relationship to
In respect to, so far as it concerns
What became apparent was that my understanding of "with" in Luke 1:37 had always been the last, least used definition, the one that translates something like this: "In respect to and as far as God is concerned, nothing is impossible." See how I just removed the human element from the equation? And that is the opposite of the intention the I believe is present here in this word, "para." Para is a relational preposition, putting people and things into contact with each other, beside each other. You might recognize "para" from some other words:
Paralegal/paramedic – working with, beside a lawyer/doctor, enhancing their work
Paradigm – to show side by side, pattern, model
Parallel – alongside one another
Parasite – alongside food, the idea of eating at another’s table (that one was just for fun)
Paraclete – to call alongside, advocate or helper, used to refer to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16)
All of these uses of "para" include the idea of doing something together with someone, in the presence of another, of being "with" someone in intentional, close proximity. "Para" invites collaboration and emphasizes relationship. When Gabriel says that nothing is impossible "with" God, he means that when we are in close proximity to God, when we work together with God, when we say Yes to God and cooperate with God, the very things that limit us, that stop us, that are obstacles to us...lose their power. When we are with God, dis-abilities or in-abilities give way to possibilities. When we are with God, the places we are powerless become occasions for demonstrations of glory. This is what Jesus came to show us. In fact, he was identified by that very concept of "with." 
Matthew 1:23. "A virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and His name will be Immanuel (which is a Hebrew name that means “God with us”)." (The Voice) 
Yes, God is with us. May we be with God as well.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

there is no such thing as a free gift

Image from wpcg.ca
It somehow seems apropos that I am doing research on the idea of gift during the Christmas season. When I first began to write this chapter of my dissertation, I was pretty sure where I would go with it. I was headed for the idea of the perfect, pure gift. A gift given without self-interest, without obligation. A gift which did not shy away from sacrifice and sought to bring the other person delight. Yes, that was the kind of selfless gift I was going to write about, the kind of gift motivated solely by concern for the other with no thought for oneself.

Earlier this year I read The Gift (1925) by sociologist, Marcel Mauss, his influential work dealing with gift-giving practices in primitive societies. Mauss concluded that gift-giving practices in archaic tribes located in Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest were actually part of a whole system which involved economic transactions, wealth dispersion, political power, familial ties, and honour codes. In short, Mauss was writing about obligatory, self-interested gifts. Which were not gifts at all, I thought. I was going to rip his idea of a gift economy to shreds, and leave it in the dust with my pure words about the perfect, free gift which makes no demands of the recipient.

But when I read him again this week, I realised that I was wrong. What Mauss observes in certain primitive societies is the important role which gift-giving plays in building and maintaining relationships. Sure, the practices are imperfect, tainted by abuses of power-hungry chiefs and tribal rivalries. Sure, certain gifts are associated with magic powers and occult practices. But, doggone it, Mauss is onto something important.

The Maoris believed that an object carried the hau or spirit of the person it belonged to. Therefore, when someone gave a gift to another person, they were actually giving a part of themselves. Now, this idea soon distorted into the donor having some sort of power over the recipient, and due to the inclination of the hau to return to its original owner, things got a bit poltergeisty, but let's not get distracted by that. At the heart of the Maori idea of gift is this: a good gift is not selfless; it contains the self. And this is what the concept of ideal gift, with its hoity-toity disassociation from the self and its self-righteous refusal of reciprocity is lacking: relationship.

A good gift should certainly be appropriate and uniquely chosen for the recipient, but this criteria does not exist in a vacuum. A good gift means that I put myself out there along with the gift. A good gift is unique not only because it is specially selected for the recipient but also because a unique person gives it. It is important to note that a gift, like an invitation, can be refused but it cannot be un-given. Therefore, giving a gift puts a person in some kind of relationship with another. And if we are in relationship, what one person does affects the other. We have become inter-connected. I agree with Mauss that there is no such thing as a free gift; there is cost involved for the giver and there is responsibility placed on the recipient to treat that sacrifice with respect. Good gifts are better than free; they are the building blocks of relationships.

People give gifts which they believe will please the other person. This is what we normally classify as a good gift. But what about people who give gifts which reflect their own personality and tastes? Is this selfish? I don't believe it is. Let me suggest that it is often an expression of their desire to connect with another person by giving something of themselves. We readily recognise this in children. The scribbly drawing of a purple dog is valued not because of its aesthetic quality, monetary value, or intuitive knowledge of the recipient, but because the child gives something of himself. It is a gift which is intimately connected with its giver. Because of this simple offering of the self, we feel connected to the child and proudly display the imperfect artwork. We would never think to belittle a gift such as this because, in truth, this type of gift is more generous and vulnerable than many sophisticated, expensive, luxury items which adults bestow on each other.

Thanks to Mauss, I am asking myself some different questions this gift-giving season. Questions like, "How can I generously receive the people who give me gifts, the people who give me a part of themselves, no matter what the gift is?" And "How can I give gifts which emphasize connection over correctness?" And this one, too: "How can I recover the generous, simple attitude of a child who gives an imperfect gift but gives it perfectly?"

In thinking about this familiar Bible verse, "For God so loved the world that he gave (made a gift of) his only Son..." (John 3:16) I am struck by the goodness of this gift, not because it was exactly what the sad and sorry world needed, but because God gave himself. And in doing so, God expressed a desire to connect with us, to nurture a tenuous relationship and see it flourish, and to build a community of child-like givers and receivers.